Use resistance as a compass


We often say, “I don’t know what to do, can you help me?”.

Sometimes of course, we genuinely don’t know, we’re stumbling for the next step.

But more often than we like to admit, the question is more honestly “I don’t like what I’m meant to do. Can you help me come up with an excuse?”

We shouldn’t feel bad about feeling this way – it’s a fact of life.

When we pursue something worthwhile, we experience resistance.

The resistance we feel toward a course of action is often as good indicator of its value. It’s a compass that points us to what we should be doing.

As Stephen Pressfield notes in The War of Art.

“Resistance only only opposes in one direction.

Resistance obstructs movement only from a lower sphere to a higher… So if you’re in Calcutta working with the Mother Teresa Foundation and you’re thinking of bolting to launch a career in telemarketing… relax. Resistance will give you a free pass.”

Resistance will grease the easy path, but obstruct the valuable one.

If we listen honestly, our resistance will tell us what to do next. It will make the best option look the most terrifying and that’s how we know it’s the right one.

An inbox full of leopards

I got an email last night which scared the shit out of me.

A new project, in a new sector, doing new things for a new purpose, and… oh yeah… most of it will be in German. Even the mere thought of it filled me with terror as it seemed like exactly the kind of project which I could royally screw up.

Every fibre of my being wanted to send back an email reading “danke, but NO FUCKING WAY!”

But then after about thirty minutes of letting it percolate, I heard a smaller, quieter voice ask “what are you afraid of? How do you know this isn’t a good thing to do?”

So my question now is: When is it foolhardy to do something you’re scared of and when is it precisely the right thing to do? (And more importantly), what’s the process for discerning the difference?

There is a natural tendency to run away from things we’re afraid of, and with good reason. Fear is a strong, biological defence mechanism designed to keep us alive in some pretty tough situations. These days, most of us have the luxury of not having to deal with daily threats to our physical existence. There are no apex predators sitting higher than us in the food chain anymore. The chances of a leopard springing out from behind the printer, picking off an office straggler and mauling him to death in front of the stationary cupboard are relatively small.

But that same fear mechanism that protected us from predators is clear and present in our brain, and it fires with alarming regularity.

And we’ve been programmed to run away from whatever triggers it, despite the fact that, most of the time, it’s not been triggered in response to a physical threat.

If we run away from the trigger, then we’re using fear as a decision making system, which is like using a hammer to crack eggs. In one respect the job is done (decision is make, eggs are cracked), but you don’t really have the outcome you were looking for.

Fear isn’t a decision making system, it’s an indicator that something requires more attention than we’re currently giving it.

We shouldn’t run away from it, nor charge it down and embrace it. We just need to sit with it, look at it and ask what it’s trying to tell us.

In the case of this email, it was telling me that “the number of unknown variables in the project increased the chance of failure”. Ok, that’s something I can work with a little more. So then I asked “what’s the cost of failure? What do we sacrifice if it does all fall apart?”

Each question would get a response and each response was a little less panicked until what came out was “nothing is inherently too scary, but we’re already really busy, so there’s not a lot of flex in the system to deal with any unexpected problems”. Alright, that’s better.

That in itself, still might be enough of a reason not do the project, but it’s a lot more helpful than the “thanks, but NO FUCKING WAY!” response. At least now I understand the root of the challenges which might come with the project and can make a more informed decision if I want to accept the risk.

I can also ask “what would have to change in order to feel differently about this?”, which is a helpful way of looking at the emotional response to something in order to try and open up some possibilities for solutions.

There was no leopard in my email – I wasn’t about to be mauled to death in front of the stationary cupboard. But the fact that I felt there was almost made me run for the hills.

All it should have been telling me is that something is worthy of careful attention, and that attention, not the fear itself, can inform further action.

Shipping, fear & the resistance

I gorged on some Seth Godin videos over the weekend. Hey, you can judge me, but you gotta do something while you fold the washing for a family of five.

I was aware of Seth, but not particularly familiar with his work. His name would pop up, associated with an idea which sounded challenging, but intriguing, and I would dutifully note it down in under a category of things best described as “I probably should, but never will, look into this further.” It’s a big category full of vague, knotty items like “learn more about affiliate marketing, explore Dostoyevsky & find out why men your age like Taylor Swift”.

Anyhow, he has lots of interesting ideas which do sound worth exploring, one of which is this notion of “shipping”.

It’s a product term relating to the act of actually getting your product to customers, but in a broader context could be analogous to “completing”. When you ship something, you’re putting a version of it out into the world with your name on it. People will (may) see it, and when they do, they’ll know that you’re responsible for it.

OK, so while this is Mickey Mouse stuff (do stuff, then put it out there), the interesting thing is this gulf between having an idea, and shipping it. Lots of people have ideas, but very few people ship. Everyone has a great idea for a product, a movie, a book – but very few people become product designers, directors or authors.

Why is it that we all have these ideas, but that most of them die as scribbles in Moleskin notebooks and not out in the real world?

Godin contends that it’s because people assume that coming up with ideas is the work, but that the actual work is shipping. Ideas are a penny a pound, but commitment to ship is rare.

He suggests that partly what makes shipping so difficult is the social fear of failure generated by our brains in our Amygdala (or Lizard Brain).

Our Amygdala is one of the most primitive blocks of our brain and is hardwired to respond to some of our most primary needs and mechanisms. Memory modulation, aggression and the utility of fear as a motivator, all fall under it’s purview. While the Amygdala’s response to fear was originally primarily to physical threats which tended to be short-lived (either the leopard ate you or you got away), it is now capable of triggering the same response in the presence of more chronic, social pressures such as email, public speaking and anything else which can make you look stupid in front of other people.

Since “shipping” a product or idea into a public space has the capacity to make you look publicly silly, the Amygdala will create a fear response to the notion of shipping. This fear can become one of the primary barriers to bridging the gulf between having an idea and shipping it. Godin calls these barriers, The Resistance, a term which was coined by Stephen Pressfield.

The real challenge, according to Godin, is how to manage this fear so that you can move beyond it to just ship.

Shipping is where the exposure to criticism will come, but it’s also where all the value is found.

There’s a lot more in this, and I haven’t done enough work to have an opinion on most of it – but I thought it was worth capturing for a start.

Here are links to:
Seth Godin’s site
Seth’s talk on shipping and fear
Stephen Pressfield’s site